Sunstein: Plain writing should be seen as an essential part of open government

For government to be more open, the language it uses must be understandable to all citizens. For those who cover government technology, or the many who tried to interpret the healthcare or financial regulatory reform legislation posted online over the past year, the issue is familiar. Government documents, written by lawyers or functionaries, is all too often dense and extremely difficult to understand for regular citizens.

With the passage of the Plain Writing Act of 2010 and a stroke of President Obama’s pen on October 13, 2010, there’s a new reason to hope that the business of government will be more understandable to all.

As a report on the Plain Language Act by Joel Siegel at ABC News reminded citizens, however, this law follows decades of similar efforts that haven’t achieved that desired outcome.

The movement to bring clarity to complex government documents began decades ago, when a Bureau of Land Management employee named John O’Hayre wrote a book after World War II called “Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go.”

In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon ordered that the “Federal Register” be written in “layman’s terms.”

The Clinton administration even issued monthly “No Gobbledygook Awards” to agencies that ditched the bureaucratese. Vice President Al Gore, who oversaw the effort, called plain language a civil right, and said it promoted trust in government. The effort gave birth to a government Web site that still operates, www.plainlanguage.gov.

There are reasons to be hopeful. For one, the Federal Register was relaunched this year, in a “historic milestone in making government more open.” “Federal Register 2.0” itself only came about after an effort that deputy White House CTO Beth Noveck observed is “collaborative government at its best. The new beta of the FederalRegister.gov continues to evolve.

This week, Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, issued a memorandum that provided further guidance.

Plain writing is concise, simple, meaningful, and well-organized. It avoids jargon, redundancy, ambiguity, and obscurity. It does not contain unnecessary complexity.

Plain writing should be seen as an essential part of open government. In his January 21, 2009 Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, President Obama made a commitment to establish “a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” Transparency, public participation, and collaboration cannot easily occur without plain writing. Clear and simple communication can eliminate significant barriers to public participation in important programs for benefits and services. Avoiding ambiguity and unnecessary complexity can increase compliance simply because people understand better what they are supposed to do. Plain writing is no mere formal requirement; it can be essential to the successful achievement of legislative or administrative goals, and it promotes the rule of law.

Preliminary Guidance for the Plain Writing Act of 2010

Among other things, the memorandum provides initial guidance to federal agencies on where to start with plain language, including making government officials accountable for implementing plain language and resources for advice. Key documents are also designated as necessary, each of which includes processes citizens need to understand:

“those that are necessary for obtaining any Federal Government benefit or service, or filing taxes; those that provide information about any Federal Government benefit or service; or those that explain to the public how to comply with a requirement that the Federal Government administers or enforces.”

If you can’t understand how to do something, good luck accomplishing the task. The same is true of benefits or legal requirements. To date, there are few aspects of regulations as clear as a red light or Stop sign. If the requirements of this law are carried out in good faith, perhaps more Americans will see more of them.

Understanding time and place is crucial for government use of social media

Does government “get social media?” As always, it depends which government you are talking about. This morning, Gartner analyst Andrea DiMaio posted about when government doesn’t get social media, in the context of new guidance on the use of social media in federal workplaces. Specifically:

On July 27, the US Office of Special Counsel published a document with Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Social Media and the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act of 1939 is a US federal law preventing federal employees from engaging in partisan political activities.

The FAQ looks at how to comply with the act when engaging on social media, with particular reference, but not limited, to Facebook and Twitter.

The basic advice is that if a federal employee accesses social media from a federal workplace and during working hours, while on duty, then the provisions of the act would apply.

The OSC memo doesn’t mean that government as a whole “doesn’t get social media,” of course. Have you followed @NASA recently? It does show that the lawyers there haven’t quite caught up to the always-on, mobile workforce. After my discussions with people in government, I’ve taken away a sense that many of the government employees themselves are quite aware of those risks and are being careful. Some will make mistakes. Some already have.

Other people have expressed frustration with this update of an old law (1935) for the social networking age. As I’ve read through the coverage, the extension on restrictions for government employees on the job didn’t strike me as unreasonable, at least with respect to previous technology. Would a government employee use a work email account to send out political messages? Or would she make calls in support of a party? Or post banners for a political party or rally on the office bulletin board? Would he loudly exclaim in a meeting in excitement that a favored candidate won a primary?

Likely not.

DiMaio’s analysis is sound, where he recognizes the permanent blurring of the boundaries between work and play, particularly for elected officials, high profile private sector officials and (of course) entertainment figures stalked by the tabloids.

On the latter count, however, the recent Supreme Court decision regarding electronic privacy over government-issued communications gear (the infamous ‘sexting’ case) re-affirmed that it does indeed matter where an update, txt or email is sent from. Any major enterprise can and does place expectations for behavior for the use of its IT equipment in the workplace, or off, particularly with respect to pornography, streaming video, P2P applications or social media. Many CIOs still choose to block public access to such platforms, for a variety of reasons. That’s changing slowly, not least because of smartphone access, but also because many organizations are shifting to risk management as opposed to risk avoidance to address social media and compliance.

I must, however, be blunt in my disagreement with his statement that “time and place are irrelevant on social media.” The growth of geolocation and location-based social networking, like Foursquare, Gowalla and now Facebook Places imply otherwise. Those services are ALL about time and place. Twitter too, in large part, in terms of its real-time ebb and flow around events, particularly disasters or breaking news. The utility of geolocation in social media was especially evident in discussions earlier this month in Washington, where the Emergency Social Data Summit highlighted the role of social media during crises.

Even a layman, without the toolset of a digital forensics team to track down IP addresses, could see where a federal employee might be if geolocation is turned on.

DiMaio is right that a tweet, update, like or link shared on a government employee’ social media about a partisan topic would be an issue, regardless of where ever and whenever it was made. As we feel our way through the meaning of the hyper-charged media environment of the moment, that’s a good lesson to take away. Be careful mixing politics and Facebook.